Interview with Melissa Pierce

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Melissa Pierce The Salty Scientist

Founder – The Salty Scientist

What is your PhD about?

I have a PhD in Oceanography. Specifically, I conducted research on the microbiome of the eastern oyster. Host-microbe interactions are really interesting because we’ve learned so much about how bacteria associated with animals are responsible for many host physiological activities – like digestion and immune system development. Oysters filter bacteria right out of the seawater so they’re a great model to study these interactions. And shellfish like oysters are so important, both economically and ecologically.

Being in an oceanography program was great because I not only got a very interdisciplinary education, but it was excellent scicomm training because I had to learn how to talk to physicists and chemists about my research in a way they could understand.

Tell us about yourself

I was never a straight-A student, and honestly, little Melissa would never have dreamed that she would one day get a PhD, but here I am. I currently work as a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Illinois at Chicago. The grant I work on is through NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), and I travel to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Washington state to carry out my experiments. Because, well, Chicago has no oceans! I still conduct research on host-microbe interactions, but I work in fish aquaculture now. My research group is trying to improve the growth and survival of sablefish (also known as black cod) for commercial aquaculture. I love working in the seafood/aquaculture sector, it’s fulfilling to have very applied research that helps people and industry.

What is your side hustle?

My science communication page, The Salty Scientist. It’s a place to learn about science in (and not in) the news, my own personal research, and the research being conducted by other scientists in my network. Delivered to you with a pinch of saltiness. I started The Salty Scientist because I believe that science should be accessible to everyone. Right now there is a disconnect between the general public and the work done by academics & researchers. My goal is to communicate complex research in a simple and easy to understand way.

Do you make money from your side hustle?

Hahaha no. My goal isn’t to be another page where I have a shop of science-themed stickers and pins (not that those aren’t awesome side hustles). I suppose I’m “selling” myself, my knowledge, the way I view the world. I want people to feel like accessing science isn’t a burden. That it’s available to them. Please tell me how to make money off of that?! But seriously, my dream goal is to one day open a marine science education resort. The concept is part resort, part research, and part education. Imagine if when you went on vacation someone could tell you all about the animals you see while you’re snorkelling or diving? Or what’s happening with the coral reefs? Beach erosion. Pollution. You get the point. I think a lot of people would enjoy learning about the environment and the place they are vacationing as well as relaxing.

How does your PhD help you in your side hustle?

Research experience and critical thinking are invaluable no matter what you do post-PhD. My number one thing that I would love people to understand is SOURCES. Where does your information come from? Is it reputable? Has it been peer-reviewed or did you read about it on Pinterest? We don’t spend enough time hammering this into kids’ heads when they’re in school until you get to the undergraduate or graduate level – which many people don’t. Think critically about where your information is coming from and if it is accurate or not. Seek out experts if you’re not sure. With social media platforms like Twitter, there are literally thousands of scientists available to everyone who has a question and would like to learn something.

Why did you start your side hustle?

I was on vacation in Thailand in 2015 and I went on a snorkelling trip in a marine protected area (the person I was with was not scuba certified so alas I had to compromise). There were probably 20, 30 other boats there full of tourists. When it was time to get in the water, they just threw us equipment and told us what time to be back at the boat. I was horrified! No pep talk about not touching the corals! I saw people STANDING on corals. I died a little inside. There was no information given about any of the sea life. As a marine scientist and as a scuba diver this seemed so counterintuitive to me. I thought “I could do this way better.” People would pay for a better experience. People are naturally curious! Tell us about what we’re seeing. That’s how the idea for a marine education resort was born. It wasn’t until this year though that I started to think about this idea as an actual reality. I guess you could call The Salty Scientist market research. It’s for me to practice my science communication and to understand what people are interested in learning about.

How has your network helped you get established with your side hustle?

My friends and colleagues have been very supportive and given me feedback on posts and topics to cover, which is so valuable. My brother is actually the one who encouraged me to start doing this – he has a side hustle himself.

How does your personal brand impact your side hustle?

I mean, I think I’ve always been a bit of a pain in the butt. I’m extroverted, loud, I like to talk, and I’m going to tell you what I think. So when I was coming up with my side hustle, “The Salty Scientist” fit perfectly with my personal brand of straightforwardness and snark. Plus, I die for a good pun and the double entendre of me being a marine scientist and a pain in the butt was too good to pass up.

Do you suffer from impostor syndrome? How do you deal with it when it shows up?

Giving yourself positive reinforcement. I think imposter syndrome can be a side effect of being a perfectionist. Feeling like nothing you do is good enough, that it could be better. For me I’m always afraid to make a mistake and look foolish. But mistakes are part of science and success in general. Mistakes are part of the process. I try to remind myself that as long as I’m doing my best, the rest will fall into place.

When I was in graduate school a senior scientist told me I would never get a job because I had “crazy hair,” didn’t dress right, etc. I think a lot of young people in the sciences can relate to that. Being told you don’t look like a scientist. That drives me nuts. I really took that to heart and was like screw you, watch me. Now I’m a postdoc and I work at both academic and government research facilities. I recently co-wrote a grant that was funded. I feel like I proved to myself that I belong. That really helps with imposter syndrome – looking back at everything I’ve accomplished helps ME believe it. 

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